How tightly do veterinarians specialize?

As a general rule, will the same vet be competent to treat my horse, puppy, and goldfish? Or do most vets specialize in mammals/reptiles/etc?

All vets receive some training in all species. However most vets specialize in their training. The major divisions are large animal vs. small animal, and domestics vs. exotics (birds, reptiles and other non domesticated pets, and zoo animals). I don’t know of any vet that sees fish. I don’t think most people put that much effort into fish, outside of Aquariums.

Numerically, most vets are small animal vets. The clients come to you and you work indoors. There’s no shoving a uterus back into an uncooperative cow at 2am, or being kicked across the barn by a ticked off horse. And the money is better, with less travel.

It seems to me that the large animal vets I know, are more comfortable ministering to small animals, than the reverse. My horse vet will give the barn cats a rabies vaccine, stitch up a cut, or prescribe antibiotics for it if the need is obvious. However they will not attempt non-obvious diagnoses or surgery. My cat vet would laugh at the idea of examining a horse in even the most basic way, though, in an emergency I’m sure he’d give it a whirl, much like a vet would try and fix a broken human in an emergency.

It is HARD to find a reptile or bird vet, i can tell you that from experience. Usually they spend time in several offices, a day here, a day there. When I have to bring in a reptile or bird, I can’t just see a doggy vet and call it a day. So I presume it’s specialized enough.

As a rule, in most veterinary schools, we receive a very broad training in the pre-clinical courses. Once rotation starts, though, different schools have different systems of tracking, meaning that in some veterinary schools, if you decide to track “large animal” you will have little exposure to small animals, while in others, your training will still be fairly broad.

The national examinations (in the US) that all veterinary students have to take close to graduation is very broad, meaning that even students interested in exotics, large animals, small animals, or public health will take the same test and know the right answers. The questions are in general from very “classic” cases and examples (or regulatory/ethics components), and any graduating veterinary student should know the answer to those “textbook” questions.

IRL, most veterinarians may then spend their next few years honing their skills in either internships or on the job training, which specializes to their favorite areas (small vs large).

But really, once a veterinary student graduates, he/she has received a broad enough education to go into any career path. I had a classmate who was die-hard equine person. She currently does small animal emergency medicine. I had another one who was very interested in exotics, did part of a clinical pathology residency, dropped out, and is now doing small animal medicine with interest in ophthalmology.

I have a friend that was an exotic small animal vet.
Translation - she worked in a suburban clinic, and if anything other than a cat or a dog was brought in, she saw it.
Hampsters, rabbits, turtles, chincilla, tarantula (she tells a story about using superglue to reattach a tarantula’s leg), parrots and yes, occasionally fish. If she had spare time, she would see dogs and cats as well.

In talking to her, the divisions seem to be:
large/farm/commercial animals (mostly cows and horses with whatever else was on the farm)
non-exotic pets (cats and dogs)
exotic pets (all other pets)
zoo vets

Also: Veterinarians can specialize further along than their four years of veterinary medicine schooling. Here is the link for the organization responsible for admitting and regulating veterinary specialties in the US. Here are all the recognized specialties (if the link works).

Personally, I did a small animal tract, with extra rotations in exotics, pathology, and public health. I definitely (if I were to go back to practice) will be more comfortable treating a dog, cat, pocket animal, or reptile than I would a bird, fish, horse, cow, pig, or other animal. Preferences and strengths, after all.

There are very few vets that specialize (either through schooling or through job experience) in treating exotics, including fish. For many it may seem like a waste, but please remember than for many people, the exotic small pets (rodents) are as much their beloved pets as a dog or a cat, and in others, those aquariums and reptile and amphibian facilities can get quite involved and costly. So yes, there is an interest in keeping those animals healthy as well, just not as much as a dog or a cat.

As seemed to happen in every James Herriot book. It just wasn’t Herriot unless he had his arm inside a cow up to the shoulder at least once.

Interesting. What regulatory and ethics issues are particularly important to vets today?

In many places, there is a big difference between large animal vet and equine vet. An equine vet will deal mostly/exclusively with horses, although they may be more competent in dealing with cows than a small animal vet. Similarly, a large animal (food animal) veterinarian will deal with food animal/production animals (either as a case by case or herd/production management veterinarian), and be little interested in equines. Again, a food animal veterinarian would be more competent in dealing with a horse than a small animal veterinarian.

Public health in general is a big area for veterinary medicine. All those food borne illnesses, all those parasites, all those zoonotic diseases. I had to learn them, and they’re important in the vets. Knowing some basic epidemiology is also tested in those boards. Regulatory for example would mean:

Medications that are a big fat NO to give to animals, as stated by federal laws.

Foreign animal diseases that are reportable and you better not miss the diagnosis or at least think about them.

Regulated vaccinations like rabies and the exact flowchart of “what to do in anything rabies related”.
Ethics for me was always difficult, because it is not as black or white or tightly regulated as it is for humans (what with the HYPPA and medical confidentiality). A lot of that is CYA, which some clients may not like but it makes sense if you think about it.

This is interesting; can any VetDopers speak to the particular issues involved in treating animals that don’t really seem to have any meaningful consciousness? I mean, with cats or dogs, quality of life is a Big Deal; pretty much everyone agrees that these animals have enough of an interior life to suffer, and we euthanize them when they’re going to keep suffering with no (or little) hope of meaningful improvement. But a tarantula probably can’t suffer; does anyone really care about spider quality-of-life issues? Or guppy quality-of-life?

Well, depends on how you define quality of life. Certainly, if their environment is not up to their standards, they suffer and their health declines. This is much more true in invertebrates and other “cold-blooded” animals than in cats and dogs. So if you consider their environment part of their “quality of life”, then yes, veterinarians (and the animals’ owners) should care.

Can you specialize into, say, veterinary dentistry, or veterinary obstetrics?

Our vet is a cat vet only. Even so, they still don’t understand completely how cats tick. When ours had cancer, she was ready to refer us to a surgical vet that specialized in cancers.

There are veterinarians who specialize not only in dentistry, but specifically equine dentistry.

Tell us more, please. How do you CYA as an ethical vet?

What I meant CYA was what others have referred to in other veterinary-related threads. For example, sharing of medical information with the client if the client is moving away to another clinic. The clinic may be more than willing to share the medical information with the veterinarian in the new place (or another referral place, or a diagnostic laboratory), but may be more iffy to share the medical records with the client directly.

Also, if you check the links I provided, veterinary dentristy is not only an “on the job” specialty, but it is one of the recognized specialties within veterinary medicine. The same can be said for obstretics, if you include it under theriogeneology (reproductive medicine, which encompasses obstetrics). What I’m mentioning between “on the job” and “recognized” is that a “recognized” specialist has to have sit on specialty boards, from the colleges mentioned in the link provided before. And in some cases, people that practice that (say, people who are really into veterinary orthopedics but never completed or sat for the surgery boards) cannot call themselves diplomates or accredited veterinary surgeons or what not (they can mention they specialize in X, but they cannot call themselves X-ologist).

Also, ethics (in veterinary medicine) covers information that you share. For some species, and in some situations, and in my specialty, the clinicians are not as concerned with how much medical information I give out in some articles or presentations, while other branches (zoo medicine) are much more stringent with paperwork and what is divulged to the public, for their own reasons. That constitutes ethics (and is also part of CYA, for all parties involved).

A third example is the usual complain I’ve heard (from family members and dopers) about veterinarians requesting a yearly heartworm test to continue heartworm prescription, even if the animal is (according to the owner) continuously on the preventive medicine. First, the veterinarian cannot confidently, 100% trust the owner that he/she is saying the truth (we wish we could!). Second, even the best preventives fail, and a yearly test will show that it was negative (so working correctly) or failed to work at some point during the last year (hence a product fail, and the company may be liable to pay for treatment). Even if a veterinarian probably knows what the results for a particular animal will be, he/she cannot risk NOT doing that, and then later that show up in some investigation.

Another example is the owners declining one of the treatment options offered. Some veterinarians will write that in their records, and other require the owner to sign off on forms. The veterinarians may not be legally required to do so, but not doing that is not what is considered being ethical.

There’s a huge specialty hospital on the northeast side of Indianapolis that houses the following specialists: ophthalmology, oncology (including chemotherapy and radiation treatment), reproductive medicine, internal medicine, orthopedic surgery, dermatology, neurology, physical rehabilitation, cardiology, emergency/critical care, and diagnostic imagining (including digital radiology, fluoroscopy, MRI, and CT scan). They also offer radioactive iodine treatment for cats with hyperactive thyroid. It’s a 35,000 square foot PALACE with every toy imaginable! They had an open house in March, and we got the full tour.

There’s one on the northwest side that is smaller, but has dermatology, internal medicine, emergency/critical care, and a dentist. He does stuff like root canals, crowns, and full mouth extractions.

Thanks for all the info, KarlGrenze. Ignorance fought.

How can a vet require an owner to sign a form?
If an owner does not want to consent to a treatment, can a vet hold the owner’s animal hostage until the owner either consents or signs? Or can the vet get a court order requiring the owner to sign?